Phantoms and red herrings

Alicia Crane WilliamsBob Anderson has a “Phantom File” at the end of his Great Migration Begins series (3: 2097–2104), with names that have been misread or misconstrued (e.g., John Allen for John Alden), meaning that no real person by the mistaken name existed.

An example of a phantom in my own family is the reference to “Samuel Crane” on page 1 of Records of the Town of Braintree 1640 to 1793, where he is included in a list of men deputized for town affairs in 1640. This entry has led writers to place Samuel Crane as the father of a later Braintree settler, Henry Crane, but if one turns to the “Errata” page at the end of this volume, one finds the notation “On page 1 is the name of ‘Samuel Crane.’ This is very doubtful. It is more probable that it is ‘Samuel Basse.’” The name Samuel Crane does not appear in any other early records, while Samuel Bass’ involvement in Braintree affairs is widespread. Samuel Crane of 1640 Braintree is a phantom.

Usually these errors are not willfully malicious…

Another example came up recently in the Early New England Families Study Project for Samuel Morse of Dedham. Clarence Almon Torrey’s entry for him in New England Marriages Prior to 1700 reads (p. 1064): “MORSE, Samuel & Mary [BULLEN]; by 1642, by 1641?; Dedham,” followed by six sources including Abner Morse’s 1850 Memorial of the Morses, which states that Samuel2 Morse, son of Samuel1, died in 1688 “at the eastward” and married Mary Bullen. I spent a good bit of time futzing around with Samuel2 before I decided to look closer at the Great Migration sketch for Samuel1. In the “comments” section (5: 175–76), Bob Anderson mentions Abner Morse’s claim and shows that it was Mary2 Morse, daughter of Samuel1 Morse, who married Samuel Bullen [not Samuel Morse who married Mary Bullen], and that Abner Morse and others have only managed to create “a totally imaginary family.”

Undoubtedly, one of the hardest concepts to convey to those beginning their genealogical searches is the idea that the material they are searching may be flawed, that it can contain “red herrings.” Usually these errors are not willfully malicious, just mistakes made by one author with insufficient sources (or overabundant imagination) and then unfortunately repeated by others without critical examination until some genealogical “ghostbuster” comes along. Even then, if the researcher does not find the correction, the phantom will live on – not to mention those researchers who do read the correction but prefer the original story, anyway!

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

16 thoughts on “Phantoms and red herrings

  1. Alicia, I have followed your writings for many years as a long-time Mayflower descendant and member of the Society. This post caught my attention because I am a Morse Descendant, but it is a line I have put into my software from the internet mostly, as opposed to being one I have researched more thoroughly. My earliest Morse is Samuel bapt 1585 in England and died 5 Dec 1654 in Medfield, M. and married Eliz Jasper. His son Joseph m.Hannah Phillips I believe, and their daughter Dorcas m.Benjamin Clark, on which line I have done far more research. I wonder if my Samuel could be the one to which you refer in this post. I have printed it out to put with my Morse data so that I don’t make the mistake to which you refer. I’d love to have a bit of direction on this line, if nothing more than to know that my Samuel info as stated above is correct to your knowledge. Please keep up your great posts and thank you for your valuable contributions over the years to MQ.
    Leslie Canavan Richards.

    1. Leslie, Thank you. You’re okay. Samuel Morse is covered in The Great Migration, 1634-1635, V:170-77, and Joseph Morse is covered in the Early New England Families Study Project, both available as databases on americanancestors.org. Good idea for everyone to run their ancestors through Search on the website once a year, at least, to see what has been made available, as it is growing fast!

      1. Thank you so much, I do belong to NEHGS and hadn’t thought of the routine check-up idea! Will follow your suggestions and maybe I can get my Morse generations fixed up. Appreciatively, Leslie

  2. Some of those phantoms would make great articles for Vita Brevis. It helps to learn about them from places like NEHGS, which we can trust.

    I put my research up on Ancestry.com. In it I have plenty of “not proven” items and suggestions to myself for further research, and I am appalled at the people who willy nilly copy those items as fact. So I realize that I need to rely on more solid evidence such as books and primary sources. It is scary to realize that those sources can be wrong also.

    One book I learned to mistrust is Henry Baker’s “A History of Montville” Connecticut. In it, Baker screwed up the Alpheus Chapman family but good. It was amusing to have a Montville resident tell me straight out that Baker maliciously falsified data for people he disliked. It is too bad that the loss of primary records made “A History of Montville” THE source for genealogical information on the area.

    More power to you, Alicia.
    Ann Tracy Marr

    1. Ann, the Internet is wonderful except for the speed at which “cut and paste” genealogy is done — at least it used to take some effort and quarters to make the copies at the library!

    2. Thank you for the warning about the Baker book. I am trying to catalog all the John/Jonathan (etc.) Rouses (numerous spellings) in SE New England to 1750 in order to identify an ancestor by the name and have relied on Baker’s book [unfortunately!]. Acc. to that book Patience Baker was a dau. of Joshua and Hannah (Tongue) (Minter) Baker and she married a John Rows about 1715 in Montville. Their daughter Patience Rowse married David Chapman about 1774, North Groton. Patience divorced John Rouse in 1728, the petition for which I found at the Conn. State Archives. It evidences the marriage, but not Patience’s parents. I was relying on the ancestry of Patience found in Baker’s book, and will now redo the research and identify for myself exactly what I know from Baker vs other records. Thank you. Allan Rouse

      1. Genealogies of the State of New York: A Record of Achievements Volume 3 has the Baker Genealogy and Joshua Baker and Hannah Tongue, daughter of George Tongue and their daughter Patience. Doesn’t mention who she married though. Pages 1399 and 1400. I descend through David Chapman and Patience Rouse line.

        1. Have you been able to document the parents of Patience? At the Conn. State Library in 2015 I transcribed the divorce petition of Patience (Baker) Rows “of New London” regarding John Rows dated September 1728 in which she described his three desertions from her and their family of three children (unfortunately unnamed). I had thought one of them was the Patience who married David Chapman. Which child of David and Patience do you descend from?

  3. I was thrilled to see my ancestors, Samuel Bullen and Mary Morse, mentioned in your post and even more thrilled that I have the correct information. It feels good to see the correct information in print. and it’s so nice to have my ancestors “remembered”, after all this time! Bless you!

  4. It helps to keep an open mind. It had come down in my family that my second great grandmother Adeline Mann’s mother was Adeline Tripp; indeed,nth at was the name given on Adeline Mann Farrington’s death certificate. Had no luck finding any records for her, but kept finding a Hannah Tripp. That turned out to be Adeline’s mother’s name, and through further research I was able to prove Mayflower ancestry! Apparently, I am the first to prove through the line of James Tripp, my fourth great grandfather!

  5. I’m also a descendant of Samuel Morse. You remind me that in an old NEHG Register article that someone had called the Rev. Abner Morse the worst genealogist ever.

    You also remind me that I’ve been lax in looking for an errata section in books lately. I use to do it regularly. Shame on me.

  6. I have a similar issue with my ancestor Wm. Straight b. 1758 RI and d.1841 NY. Apparently, there is no record of his birth, while some researchers have put together circumstantial evidence and assume that he is the son of Wm. Straight who was born 19 Nov. 1737 at E. Greenwich, RI and “supposedly” died 1783. My problem is that none of his children were named after anyone in this family, yet several of his children have the same names as members of Loyalist Wm. Straight’s family. That Wm. was born 1 Nov. 1737 – 10 days before the other Wm. Straight, also in E. Greenwich, RI. He evacuated to New Brunswick Canada with other Loyalists in 1783, the same year the other Wm.1737 supposedly died. Both Wm. 1737 had brothers named Job born within 3 years of each other. My ancestor’s first born son Wm., Jr. moved sometime after 1830 from Otsego Co, NY to Scio, Allegany, NY the same town where Loyalist Wm.’s brother Job G. lived, even living next door to Job’s son Robert, according to the 1840 census! My ancestor Wm. 1758-1841 is also assumed to be the Wm. Straight that enlisted at Dutchess County, while in his pension application he makes no mention of Dutchess Co., and states that he enlisted at Montgomery Co., NY, in time to serve in the Battle at Fort Montgomery. To confound matters even more, my grandfather spoke of Native American ancestry, and at least one message board poster said her grandmother told her that our shared Wm. Straight/Strait family is of Native American ancestry. I am still working on numerous other clues until my eyes start crossing….

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